Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
April 24, 2014

April 20, 2014

‘Grass-Roots’ OFA Snags First Million-Dollar Donor

White House officials like to trumpet Organizing for Action as a “grass-roots-funded organization,” but the six-figure donors to President Barack Obama’s tax-exempt advocacy group keep adding up, and it just snagged its first million-dollar contributor.

Hedge fund founder and biotechnology entrepreneur David Shaw became the first OFA donor to clear $1 million, thanks to his $500,000 contribution to the organization in the first quarter of this year. Other top donors include author and philanthropist Amy Goldman Fowler, who’s given $750,000 since OFA’s inception in January of last year, and Fred Eychaner, president of News Web Corp., who gave $500,000 to help get the group off the ground.

More than half of OFA’s $32 million in receipts so far still come from small donors of $250 or less. In this quarter, OFA collected $5.9 million from 124,000 donors and the average contribution was $38.68, officials announced. Still, close to two dozen high-dollar donors have now given $100,000 or more. The top 10 donors have contributed $3.9 million collectively so far.

This inner circle includes such top Obama presidential campaign bundlers as Eychaner and Shaw, along with Wall Street investors, CEOs and executives in the real estate, entertainment, pharmaceutical and insurance industries. Ten donors have given $200,000 or more, including California philanthropist John Goldman; Utah venture capitalist Ryan Smith; New York City philanthropist and composer Philip Munger, and investor Mark Gallogly.

Obama administration officials have rejected suggestions that six-figure donors enjoy special access to the White House, and have ignored calls from watchdogs that Obama shut the group down.

As a tax-exempt advocacy group barred from spending most of its money on politics, OFA has also ignored complaints from congressional Democrats that it’s sitting out  elections. The group has focused instead on the president’s policy agenda, including promoting enrollment in the Affordable Care Act, and advocating for immigration and gun safety legislation.

OFA takes no lobbyist or corporate money and voluntarily discloses donors of $250 or more every quarter. Shaw, OFA’s first million-dollar contributor, is worth $3.5 billion, according to Forbes magazine, and has served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under both Bill Clinton and Obama. OFA’s top 10 donors are:

  1. David Shaw, co-founder D.E. Shaw: $1 million
  2. Amy Goldman Fowler, New York author and philanthropist: $750,000
  3. Fred Eychaner, president, News Web Corp., Chicago, Ill.: $500,000
  4. Ryan Smith, Salt Lake City, Utah, venture capitalist: $351,260
  5. Philip Munger, New York City philanthropist: $250,000
  6. John Goldman, Atherton, Calif., philanthropist: $225,000
  7. Mark Gallogly, co-founder, Centerbridge Partners: $200,000
  8. Kenneth Levine, senior vice president, McAfee: $200,000
  9. Olan Mills II, chairman emeritus, Olan Mills, Inc.: $200,000
  10. Jon Stryker, New York City architect, philanthropist: $200,000

April 16, 2014

Alignment Government Strategies, New Lobby Boutique, Comes Into Alignment | Downtown Moves

Five lobbyists at Williams & Jensen are leaving to set up their own bipartisan shop, Alignment Government Strategies.

Bert Carp, Michael Beer, Rebecca Anderson, Jenny DiJames and Pat Pettey, all formerly with Williams & Jensen, are joining with Leo Jardot, who previously ran the Washington office for the pharmaceutical firm Wyeth.

“We saw an opportunity to do something entrepreneurial,” said Carp, who served as a domestic policy aide in the Carter administration and lobbies on telecom, tax, energy and other issues.

In 2013, Williams and Jensen was the seventh largest lobbying practice, according to reports filed with Congress under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. Full story

April 9, 2014

Robert Zirkelbach Leaving AHIP for PhRMA | Downtown Moves

It’s as a colleague said, the end of an era. Robert Zirkelbach, the long-time chief flack at America’s Health Insurance Plans, is heading to another titan of the industry, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers of America.

Zirkelbach was in charge of helping AHIP and its head, Karen Ignagni, navigate some of the most treacherous policy and political waters in recent history: the debate over the Affordable Care Act. AHIP worked hand-in-glove with the Obama administration to make sure insurers stayed on board, and Ignagni and her organization took some major licks. The place he’s heading, PhRMA, also got criticized by those skeptical and opposed to Obamacare for doing much the same. Full story

By Jason Dick Posted at 2:57 p.m.
Downtown Moves

Abbott Ups Haas to Top Lobbyist | Downtown Moves

Abbott Laboratories has a new chief federal lobbyist.

The pharmaceutical and health care company promoted Rosemary Haas to vice president of federal government affairs. It also created a new trade policy team headed by Jason Grove, who will manage global issues.

An outside spokeswoman for the company said neither was available for comment because Abbott does not allow its government affairs employees to speak with the press.

Haas has been with Abbott since 1984 and spent the past nine years as a senior director in federal government affairs. She has focused on tax, nutrition and health care policy and  spearheaded the company’s effort to repeal the medical device tax included in the Affordable Care Act, according to a company press release. Full story

April 8, 2014

Do Campaign Finance Violations Warrant Jail Time? | A Question of Ethics

Q. I was amazed to see last month that longtime Fiesta Bowl official John Junker was sentenced to time in federal prison. He’s been a respected member of the community for decades, and I have a hard time fathoming that he would do anything that warrants time in prison. He does not seem like a criminal to me, and from what I’m told, he was accused of breaking rules about how to raise money for political campaigns. Can you really go to jail for that?

On March 13, John Junker, former executive director and CEO of the Fiesta Bowl, was sentenced to eight months in federal prison. This is someone who Sports Illustrated once named the seventh-most-powerful man in college football, and whom others have called the face of what was good about college football bowls. Junker became executive director of the Fiesta Bowl in 1990, at just 34, and helped build it into one of the premier sporting events in the country, eventually becoming the nation’s highest paid bowl executive.

Yet there he was last month in federal court in Arizona, standing before U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell, awaiting his fate.

Many in the community submitted letters urging that Junker be spared prison time. There were more than 100 such letters, including one from Jerry Colangelo, former owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks, who called Junker an “important contributor and supporter of our community.” Other letters came from employees of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Phoenix charity serving the poor where Junker now works.

Federal prosecutors argued, however, that prison time was warranted. “Junker’s crime is serious,” prosecutors wrote in a February court filing. “He was the leader of a multi-object conspiracy to make illegal campaign contributions, to lie to the Federal Election Commission and to defraud the United States by concealing illegal campaign contributions and lobbying expenses from the IRS.”

In 2011, Junker admitted to all of this when he pleaded guilty to one count of criminal conspiracy. Specifically, he acknowledged conspiring to solicit political campaign contributions from Fiesta Bowl employees and to later reimburse those employees in the guise of employee bonuses.

Why would someone do this? In fact, it is a classic way to try to evade laws that, at the time, prohibited corporations from making direct contributions to political campaigns. Junker stated in his plea agreement that he knew what he was doing, and that it was wrong.

“I knew … that … it was illegal for … corporations … to make donations to political campaigns,” Junker stated in the agreement, “and that it was illegal to use other people’s names to pretend that contributions being made by … corporations … were actually not being made by the … corporations.” Junker also acknowledged that he knew that, since making contributions using other people’s names was illegal, agreeing to engage in this conduct with others was also a crime.

But, he did so anyway. And, that’s presumably why he pleaded guilty to criminal conspiracy, a felony carrying a maximum of five years in prison.

His plea agreement with prosecutors provided that his prison sentence would not exceed two years. And, in the time since his 2012 plea, Junker reportedly continued to help prosecutors with their investigation, as required by his plea agreement. Prosecutors ultimately recommended a one year sentence to the court. Junker’s attorney argued in response that probation alone would suffice.

As judges often do, Campbell arrived at a result somewhere in between: eight months in prison. Campbell acknowledged that Junker has already paid a serious price for his actions, losing his job and more. But, Campbell said, Junker’s violations of law warranted a prison sentence because Junker had engaged in a conspiracy and caused his employees to commit crimes as well. As a result, even the Fiesta Bowl itself was put at risk by making false statements about campaign contributions to the government, including the IRS and the Federal Election Commission.

So, what’s the lesson here? If you ever face sentencing for a federal crime, it may help reduce your sentence that you’re a valued member of the community, that you cooperated with the government, and that others speak out on your behalf. But, it won’t necessarily keep you out of prison. A felony is a felony.

C. Simon Davidson is a partner with the law firm McGuireWoods. Submit questions to Questions do not create an attorney-client relationship. Readers should not treat his column as legal advice.

April 5, 2014

SCOTUS Spawns Search for Son of ‘Super PAC’

The chattering classes (no insult intended) are scrambling to come up with a snappy moniker for the joint fundraising committees that may emerge as political power centers in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling.

First, the Huffington Post’s Paul Blumenthal alerted readers that the McCutcheon ruling, which struck the aggregate campaign contribution limit, would force them to learn all about these until-now obscure joint committees. The headline said it all: “Figured Out Dark Money Groups, Super PACs? Thanks to the Supreme Court, You’ll Have to Learn About This, Too.”

Next, The Washington Post’s Matea Gold challenged readers of “The Fix” blog to come up with “some pithy names” to describe joint fundraising committees, as well as the turgidly-named “outside groups” that play such a big role in campaigns these days. Gold launched the contest on Twitter, and will announce the winners next week.

So what are joint fundraising committees, and what should they be called? Election lawyer Robert Kelner, who chairs Covington & Burling’s election law and political practice group, has already got his answer: “super joint fundraising committees” or “super JFCs” for short. In a statement on the day of the ruling, Kelner predicted: “We expect to see the emergence of so-called super joint fundraising committees (JFCs) involving many candidates to which a donor could write a single very large check.” Full story

April 3, 2014

Mark Baker Joins Mercury to Expand Rocky Mountain Presence | Downtown Moves

In a series of new hires to broaden its influence, Mercury Public Affairs announced Thursday that attorney and Republican political adviser Mark Baker is joining its team.

Baker will serve in an “of counsel” role with Mercury, working with some of the firm’s clients in an effort to expand its presence in the Northwest.

“My understanding of the culture of the Rocky Mountain West is important,” Baker told CQ Roll Call.

Currently, Baker is managing partner of his Montana law firm and serves on the National Finance Committee for the National Republican Congressional Committee.  He said he will remain on the committee and “raise critical resources for the 2014 cycle.”

The “of counsel” role is not new for Baker.  He worked in the same capacity for Denny Miller Associates for 15 years.  Mercury approached Baker around the time that Miller closed his office last year so, Baker said, “The transition worked out well from a timing perspective.”

Baker joins fellow Montanan and former Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg at the public affairs firm. Rehberg served in Congress for more than a decade and is now co-chairman of Mercury’s D.C. office.

Baker will remain in Montana, although he plans to spend one week per month in Washington, D.C.

“Mark is a critical addition to the firm,” said Mercury Partner Vin Weber in a statement, “with impressive experience in both national and Montana politics.”



April 2, 2014

Will McCutcheon Ruling Boost Political Parties?

priebus 176 031813 445x296 Will McCutcheon Ruling Boost Political Parties?

Priebus voiced his excitement on the ruling Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus could hardly contain his glee during a conference call with reporters shortly after the Supreme Court ruled to strike the aggregate limit on campaign contributions.

“We are excited about the outcome of this case,” exulted Priebus, noting that the RNC bankrolled the constitutional challenge brought by businessman Shaun McCutcheon from beginning to end. In McCutcheon v. FEC, the court ruled 5-4 to overturn the overall limit on what an individual may donate collectively to parties, candidates and PACs in one election cycle, which was capped at $123,200 total.

The ruling “allows us to go to our donors and say: Look instead of being able to give to only nine Senate candidates, you can now give to the 14 that are most in play,” Priebus told reporters. “And you can give to the Senate committee, the congressional committee and the RNC, and you can max out to all three.”

Priebus wasn’t the only party official rejoicing in the wake of the high court’s Wednesday ruling. One Democratic campaign committee operative confided that he was “happy as a pig in shit.” While advocates of campaign finance limits on and off Capitol Hill assailed the ruling as an invitation to corruption and campaign finance abuses, party officials welcomed the decision. Full story

Supreme Court Rejects Aggregate Contribution Limits

scotus 078 100813 445x296 Supreme Court Rejects Aggregate Contribution Limits

Campaign finance reform advocate Fred Wertheimer speaks at the Supreme Court after McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission arguments last year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Updated, 11:45 a.m. | In a long-awaited ruling in the case known as McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court today struck the aggregate limit on campaign contributions as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

Significantly, the high court left in place the base limit on how much individuals and political action committees may give to candidates and political parties. But today’s ruling makes a challenge to that direct contribution limit, which stands at $2,600 per election for an individual, all but inevitable in the near future.

What the court overturned today was the overall limit on the amount that one individual may give to candidates, parties and PACs in a two-year election cycle, a cap that now stands at $123,000. Republican businessman Shaun McCutcheon had challenged the aggregate limit on the grounds that giving the same amount to a larger number of candidates would not invite corruption. Full story

April 1, 2014

Christie’s Contractors: Backers Barred From Donating Found Loophole

christie 074 030614 445x309 Christies Contractors: Backers Barred From Donating Found Loophole

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may manage to put the George Washington Bridge scandal behind him, but even if he does, his ethics troubles won’t be over.

Christie’s complicated relationship with campaign contributors and state contractors, in particular, will draw scrutiny as he continues to mull a 2016 presidential bid. Christie’s donors have a history of gravitating to secretive and little-regulated political groups to promote the GOP governor and his agenda.

These include tax-exempt organizations that spent millions on Christie’s gubernatorial election and re-election campaigns, and that operate outside the disclosure rules. Political activity by nonprofits has become commonplace these days, and Christie’s opponents run their own non-disclosing tax exempt groups.

But Christie’s big backers, who have bankrolled several pro-Christie operations, stand out because many of them are state contractors otherwise barred from contributing to his campaign. New Jersey “pay-to-play” laws, considered the strictest in the nation, bar large state contractors, utilities and financial services firms that manage state pension funds from donating to state candidates.

Yet a long list of New Jersey contractors and pension fund managers have given generously to groups that either back or are closely linked with Christie. Such contributions have repeatedly raised questions as to whether Christie supporters are skirting the state’s pay-to-play laws — a suggestion that the state Treasury Department, which enforces those statutes, has rejected.

Full story

Discharge Petitions Are Useful Minority Tools | Procedural Politics

Perhaps only Congress can invent a tool that it fully expects will rarely perform its intended function. It’s called the discharge petition, a device designed to dislodge bills stuck in committee. This year, House Democrats have filed three such petitions on issues they hope will propel them back to majority status in the midterm elections — a minimum wage increase, an immigration overhaul and unemployment compensation.

The original House discharge rule was adopted in 1910 as a further blow for majority rule just three months after minority Democrats and insurgent Republicans ousted Speaker Joe Cannon as Rules Committee chairman. Under the modern version of the rule, adopted in 1931, a member can file a petition on a motion to discharge any bill that has been pending in committee at least 30 legislative days or on a special rule for consideration of such a bill if the rule has been in the Rules Committee for at least seven legislative days. The advantage of discharging a special rule is that it keeps the process alive even if the bill is reported from committee. A petition directly discharging a bill from committee is dead once the committee reports the measure.

When a petition gains 218 signatures (a full House majority), the motion to discharge is placed on the discharge calendar. After seven legislative days it can be called up on the second or fourth Monday of the month by any member who signed the petition. If the motion is adopted after 20 minutes of debate, the House proceeds immediately to consider the bill or special rule.

On Feb. 26, Democratic Rep. Timothy H. Bishop of New York filed a discharge petition on a bill introduced last year by Education and the Workforce Committee ranking Democrat George Miller of California to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. The petition, filed at the clerk’s desk at the front of the House chamber, currently has 195 of the requisite 218 signatures.

Because Bishop filed his petition directly on the Miller bill and not on a special rule, he is counting heavily on Education and the Workforce Republicans not reporting the bill to vitiate the discharge process. Should the Bishop petition succeed, the House would proceed to consider the bill in the Committee of the Whole subject to up to one hour of debate per member, followed by an open amendment process under the 5-minute rule (an unintended filibuster?)

Coincidentally, the first discharge petition to succeed in the enactment of a law occurred on the very first federal minimum wage law, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. It was an unusual situation because the Democratic majority was twice forced to dislodge a special rule from the Rules Committee for consideration of the Senate-passed 40-cents an hour minimum wage bill reported by the House Labor Committee. In 1937, the Rules Committee was under the control of a conservative coalition of Democrats and Republicans reflecting in part a backlash in Congress against President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempted packing of the Supreme Court.

Because the minimum wage bill was recommitted to the Labor Committee after the first discharge success, a second petition was filed in the next session on a new special rule for the same bill after the Labor Committee again reported it. Both discharge moves were led by Labor Committee Chairman Mary T. Norton, a fiery liberal Democrat from New Jersey. The bill’s second iteration scaled-back the earlier 40-cents an hour minimum wage to 20 cents. It overwhelmingly passed the House and became law after a conference with the Senate.

Miller and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, both retiring “Watergate Babies” (class of 1974), succeeded in bringing President Barack Obama around this year to their $10.10 minimum wage bills from the $9 hourly wage the president advocated just a year ago. Miller, former chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, is rounding-out the circle begun by his 1930s counterpart, Chairman Norton.

Historically, discharge petitions are exercises in futility given majority party opposition. Since 1931, 637 discharge petitions have been filed, including nine in this Congress. Only 47 have reached the discharge calendar — none in the past decade. Only three discharged bills have become law although other targeted discharge measures have been enacted using alternative procedures. Nonetheless, the device remains a useful tool in rallying House minority party members, pressuring vulnerable majority party members, mobilizing grass-roots supporters, raising campaign funds from allied interest groups and educating voters on major issues dividing the parties.

Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

March 25, 2014

Democrats’ Anti-Koch Attacks Have a Familiar Ring

There is an oddly familiar ring to Democrats’ escalating attacks on the conservative billionaire Koch brothers.

In 2010, then-White House adviser David Axelrod decried the undisclosed, unrestricted money bankrolling outside conservative groups as “a threat to our democracy.” This year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been blasting the Kochs as “un-American” and accusing them of “trying to buy America.”

The comparison bodes poorly for Democrats now dumping millions into their campaign to demonize the Kochs in what appears to be a central piece of their midterm elections strategy. In 2010, unrestricted conservative outside groups funded by industrialists Charles and David Koch helped knock House Democrats out of power in a historic GOP upset. This time around, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity has already spent some $27 million attacking Democrats, focusing squarely on the party’s most vulnerable Senate incumbents.

But it’s unclear how much Democrats have learned from the last midterms. Yes, Democrats have established their own network of unrestricted super PACs, casting off any pretense of taking the political-money high road. This election’s top-spending super PAC so far is the pro-Democrat Senate Majority PAC, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and liberal super PACs have spent almost double that of their conservative counterparts.

The anti-Koch attacks are now the subject of a $3 million Senate Majority PAC ad campaign — essentially a retread of liberal assaults on big money in 2010. In those elections, the first to follow the Supreme Court’s ruling in early 2010 to lift all limits on independent political spending, Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse bemoaned the “growing and pernicious effects of secret, special interest money being used to determine the outcome of our elections.”

This time, the Democrats’ attacks on big money are being leveled more personally at the Kochs and their Koch Industries Inc. conglomerate. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee portrays Republicans as “addicted to Koch.” A Web ad by American Bridge 21st Century, the Democratic super PAC and tracking organization, calls the Koch agenda “bad for the middle class.”

Officials for Koch Industries have criticized the attacks as an intimidation campaign designed to deflect attention from Democrats’ own agenda. Organizers for Americans for Prosperity, a social welfare group that operates outside the disclosure rules, maintain that their objective is to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

But the group’s ads hammer on vulnerable Democrats in states such as Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina, and they are expanding into campaign-style organizing, door-knocking and voter mobilization. Some speculate that the anti-Koch attacks leveled by Reid and his allies are a distress signal to liberal donors.

Democrats say their complaints against the Kochs are rooted in their policy differences with Republicans. The anti-Koch campaign hammers on populist themes such as economic equity and entitlements for seniors, and portrays Republicans as the party of moneyed interests.

As American Bridge spokeswoman Gwen Rocco put it: “The real reason the Kochs have already spent tens of millions on attacks this cycle is to undermine voters’ confidence in government and drive their conservative agenda that enriches the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle and working class.”

In Arkansas, where GOP Rep. Tom Cotton is challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, Pryor campaign officials estimate that Americans for Prosperity has spent $2.2 million on ads opposing the senator. Total outside spending against Pryor tops $5 million. Pryor accuses Cotton of being in the pocket of wealthy interests and argues that the representative’s votes against the farm bill and the Violence Against Women Act, for example, put him and the conservative groups that back him out of step with Arkansas voters.

“Obviously the outside money from these Republican groups is going to be large, and it’s likely that we will be outspent on TV,” Arkansas Democratic Party spokesman Patrick Burgwinkle said. “But what’s important for us is getting the message across that Congressman Cotton and these outside groups are just too reckless for Arkansas.”

In North Carolina, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan has launched a digital media campaign showing her GOP opponent, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, as aligned with the Kochs’ “bad-for-the-middle-class” policies. Americans for Prosperity has spent $8.3 million on ads opposing Hagan, according to numbers released by Hagan’s campaign.

Republicans dismiss the anti-Koch attacks as a sign of Democratic desperation. In 2010, voters largely ignored Democrats’ assaults on secret, unrestricted campaign money and delivered the House to Republicans in a 68-seat sweep. Democrats’ recent anti-Koch assaults are more rooted in substantive differences with Republicans on issues such as Medicare and the minimum wage. Still, it remains to be seen whether their campaign against moneyed interests will resonate any better with voters in the 2014 midterm elections than it did four years ago.

Steeped in Overhead: A Look at the Expenses of Tea Party Groups

chocola002 010914 445x299 Steeped in Overhead: A Look at the Expenses of Tea Party Groups

Chocola runs the Club for Growth. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated, 5:20 p.m. | Republican leaders are stepping up their campaign to discredit tea party activists who are challenging them on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail, accusing conservatives of lining their own pockets at the expense of the GOP.

A recent radio ad for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — who is under attack from the right in his own primary — blasts the Senate Conservatives Fund for spending its money “on a luxury townhouse with a wine cellar and hot tub in Washington, D.C.” House Republicans joke privately about the “conservative-industrial complex.” Even Ann Coulter has warned of “con men and scamsters” infiltrating the tea party movement.

Such claims hold more water for some groups than others in a movement with no clear leader. The tea party, loosely defined, is scattered among more than a dozen multimillion-dollar organizations, from the Club for Growth to FreedomWorks, to the Tea Party Express and the conservative startup Madison Fund, all with different bottom lines and spending patterns.

Some of the groups that have come in for the most criticism, such as the Senate Conservatives Fund — which calls the McConnell radio ad inaccurate — actually do spend most of their money on candidates. Others, such as the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, have spent exactly zero in this election cycle on candidates, even as they raise millions from low-dollar donors.

Whatever their overhead, tea-party-aligned groups are spending tens of millions collectively, sometimes with little or no board oversight. Such groups tend to operate multiple fundraising entities, simultaneously pulling in checks for a 501(c)(3) charity, a 501(c)(4) advocacy group, a conventional political action committee subject to contribution limits and an unrestricted super PAC. Public records filed with the IRS and the Federal Election Commission revealed some unusual expenditures.

Full story

March 11, 2014

Is Negotiating Political Agreement a Lost Art? | Procedural Politics

Voters often complain that members of Congress “can’t seem to agree on anything.” You know people are on to something when their own representatives in Washington echo the same complaint — one of the few bipartisan sounds emanating from the capital, if not in perfect harmony.

Political scientists are now weighing in on the same topic though they don’t all agree on the causes and effects of contemporary political gridlock, let alone the cures. Princeton’s Michael Barber and Nolan McCarty recently analyzed some of the popular explanations and remedies in a paper on the “Causes and Consequences of Polarization,” published as part of an American Political Science Association task report on “Negotiating Agreement in Politics.”

The authors concede that “social science research has only recently begun to help shape … discussions on the causes of polarization,” though the reform-minded are already looking for “panaceas” to mitigate its effects. Perhaps ironically, the reforms most backed by the public and press for reducing polarization — neutral redistricting, open primaries and campaign financing changes — have already been found wanting in various studies.

According to the authors, “The evidence in support of gerrymandering as a cause of polarization is not strong,” and “it is implausible that partisan primaries are a major cause of polarization.” Likewise, “there is a weak connection between campaign spending and election outcomes.”

Other reformers look to internal procedural changes in Congress as a way to reduce partisanship and gridlock. They point to the large increase in party-line votes on amendments in the House since recorded votes were first permitted in the committee of the whole in the 1970s. But this does not explain the parallel growth in polarization in the Senate.

Another explanation is the growing powers of party leaders who can exert pressures on members to vote the party line. “Unfortunately,” the authors write, “the effects of party can be recovered only under strong assumptions,” and an alternative methodology actually shows “declining party pressures in the contemporary Congress.”

Rather than look for electoral or discrete procedural fixes to reduce polarization and gridlock, the APSA task force has recommended that Congress relearn the art of deliberative decision-making. That entails using an “integrative negotiation” process in which participants discover or create joint gains beyond what was originally considered the bounds of possible agreement — what they call pie-expanding versus a fixed-pie bias.

The task force members concede “it would be naïve to think that all conflicts can be negotiated,” especially in today’s Congress. Sometimes parties and their allied interest groups prefer electoral gains over substantive solutions. In such cases, they write, “political struggle rather than negotiation may well be the better recourse for altering the status quo.”

But other issues do lend themselves to negotiation and can succeed if “the rules of collective political engagement” are followed. Those rules include a formal role for nonpartisan, technical expertise in advance of specific legislative proposals; repeated interactions among participants to nurture trustworthy behavior; penalty defaults (action-forcing deadlines); and negotiations in private settings that avoid posturing in favor of pondering.

Deliberative negotiation has occurred since the beginning of the republic, the report observes. It is now a matter of convincing Congress to “return to the basics.” The difficulty in implementing such an approach today is that Congress is time-limited while deliberation is a timeless value. Each Congress is under a two-year gun, each committee has only a few hours each week to process numerous pieces of legislation, and each member is buffeted between committees, office appointments, floor votes and fundraisers, all in truncated, three-day workweeks.

Second, it is true that more can be accomplished in candid, private discussions. Sun exposure can be malignant to good-faith bargaining. However, House and Senate rules prohibit closed committee sessions except for sensitive national security matters. Rolling back Congress’ sunshine rules is a non-starter.

Third, it is doubtful that many of today’s re-election-fixated members are willing to master the art of deliberative negotiation, let alone sit through more balanced, thorough and prolonged committee hearings and meetings. Dialing for campaign dollars takes priority.

The main obstacles to results-driven deliberation are a paucity of informed argumentation and an excess of dramacracy — acting out rather than acting on problems. Still, efforts can and should be made to restore some semblance of rational discourse in committees that empowers members of both parties to contribute and benefit. The APSA is to be commended on initiating this back-to-basics conversation.

Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

March 10, 2014

Erica Elliott, Passionate About Derivatives and Kazimir Malevich | Downtown Moves

It’s rare to find someone who is equally passionate about derivatives and modern art in the public policy world. Erica Elliott, formerly communications director for House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and most recently policy adviser at Crowell & Moring’s public policy group, is that rare person.

elliott002 022414 445x299 Erica Elliott, Passionate About Derivatives and Kazimir Malevich | Downtown Moves

Elliott, in her new Crowell & Moring digs. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“One of my issues that I’m most passionate about, and this is strange, I’m really passionate about derivatives,” Elliott said in a recent interview shortly after taking up shop with Crowell & Moring. She added that when she was thinking about leaving Capitol Hill and what would be the next professional step, she had a simple test. “I thought to myself, you’re at a cocktail party with people, having a perfectly polite conversation, what is it that would rile you up enough to actually turn that polite conversation into a political debate? And for me, it wasn’t Obamacare or politics broadly , but let me tell you, regulation of derivatives, for whatever reason, fires me up.” Full story

By Jason Dick Posted at 4:05 p.m.
Downtown Moves

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